THEATRE REVIEW: Steven Berkoff's Oedipus, Liverpool Playhouse
A SOLID black banqueting table appears to be the only thing of substance in Sophocles's Ancient Greek whodunnit, retold by Steven Berkoff to compelling effect.
Kings metamorphosise into vagabonds then slaves and then back to kings again, while sons transform into husbands and wives into mothers.
The truth slips mercurially from one shape to another and divine intervention battles it out with free will in a war with no clear winner.
The play, a Liverpool Playhouse co-production, opens with Oedipus on the cusp of shattering his own world, bathed Christ-like in a triangle of light as his subjects approach slowly from behind. Their movement is sinister, their expressions menacing, as they take their seats next to their king.
Part royal court, part chorus, they switch between lively activity and freezing in a series of tableaux reminiscent of Edward Burra paintings - their faces transfixed in gargoyle grimaces of relief or horror.
Berkoff's direction borders on choreography in a stylistic production that makes storytelling its priority - subtle lighting shifts and a disconcerting soundtrack played live from the wings enhancing the tension.
Action is related rather than demonstrated, with only the most violent passages replayed during their narration - the two conflicting testimonials of the death of King Laius mimed on top of the table, Queen Jocasta's suicide and Oedipus's self-mutilation. Yet it grabs your attention and holds on to it throughout its 105-minute single act.
Simon Merrells gives an emotional performance as Oedpius evolves from the confident king searching for the cause of his city's curse to a heartbroken man shaken by the terrible realisation of his own unnatural behaviour - his belief that he has followed his chosen path in life uprooted by the suggestion that he may be a pawn existing for the gods' entertainment.
"I do not blush to own my motherhood," he announces upon believing he is descended from slaves - then tearing out his own eyes when confronted with his mother's true identity.
There's an immediacy to Berkoff's script, which transforms a classical tragedy written to be performed in front of 17,000 spectators more than two millennia ago into an accessible work suitable for an intimate modern theatre without killing its poignancy.
And the question of whether we are responsible for our own choices in life or if we travel a predestined path is one that continues to trouble us today.